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U.S. wolf-trapping program to end

A popular federal program that for 33 years has quietly trapped and killed thousands of wolves in northern Minnesota will become extinct after Friday.

The wolves were targeted near where livestock and pets had been killed. And almost everyone who knew about the program -- farmers, conservation leaders, wolf lovers, state natural resource officials, Republican and Democratic politicians -- liked it.

But with a moratorium on earmarks in Washington, there's no money assigned to the program after fiscal 2011 ends Friday, when wolf trappers will cease operations. In past years, Minnesota and Wisconsin Congress members routinely used earmarks to preserve the program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division.

"This will be an absolute catastrophe. We've got too many wolves causing too many problems now," said Dale Lueck, an Aitkin area cattle farmer, treasurer of the Minnesota Cattleman's Association and a strong supporter of killing more wolves in Minnesota. "But if you take this program away, it will be a disaster. Starting Oct. 1 you're going to make law-abiding Minnesotans guilty of a federal felony offense when they go out to protect their own livelihood."

Last year alone, the trapping program investigated 272 complaints and killed 192 wolves. In 2009, they killed 199 wolves. This year they are up to 189.

Supporters say the wolf-trapping program acted as not only pinpoint response but also as a safety valve to relieve social and political pressure among people who don't like wolves and might otherwise take matters into their own hands, killing wolves indiscriminately with poison or guns.

"We're losing one of the best wolf conservation tools we've had. It was so effective at solving the problem without randomly harming wolves," said Nancy Gibson, a board member of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center. "And there was such an educational element. The trappers had so much expertise, I think they really helped the farmers avoid problems."

Minnesota is one of

17 states where federal animal control will end Friday because of the moratorium on earmarks -- from starling and beaver control to coyotes, wolves, geese and cormorants -- said Carol Bannerman, a spokeswoman for the USDA. In Grand Rapids, where the program is based, four career employees may be offered jobs in other areas of the USDA and six seasonal workers will be laid off.

Killing wolves was allowed, even though wolves are a federally protected species, because Minnesota wolves were classified as threatened, a step removed from endangered. In Wisconsin and Michigan, trapped wolves are relocated away from farms.

By specifically targeting wolves in areas where verified attacks occurred, federal trappers usually got the guilty culprits. The farmer got immediate relief. And wolves miles away minding their own business didn't have to pay the price. Trappers were required to stay within a half-mile of where the problem occurred.

Peak demand typically occurs starting in April when calves and lambs are born and continues through summer. But trappers get calls every month.

"We are by no means experts on verifying whether an animal was killed by a wolf or not, but these guys are. If there's a wolf around that farm, they usually get it," said Kipp Duncan, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in the Duluth area who often gets the first call from farmers when livestock are killed. "They are good at what they do. ... It's going to be a bummer without them around. We just don't have any way to do what they do."

There are an estimated 3,200 wolves in Minnesota and about 700 each in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, many more than federal officials expected when the animal first received federal protection in 1974.

In Wisconsin, where federal trappers must relocate wolves rather than kill them because of their endangered status there, state officials have found state money to keep the relocation program going through December.

"After that, I don't know what will happen. This is a program, that, one way or the other, we need to keep going even after delisting," said Adrian Wydeven, wolf biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Even when you allow public taking (of wolves) it's not going to necessarily solve specific geographic problems."

There has been talk in Washington of trying to include the wolf program in the USDA's core budget for 2012, but it's unclear if and when that might happen. Congress continues to budget by passing "continuing resolutions" that don't allow budget changes. And there's no guess on when new agency appropriations bills might pass.

If delisting becomes formal and the state regains control of wolf management, Minnesota officials say they have funding to conduct some sort of targeted trapping program, said Dan Stark, large canine biologist for the Minnesota DNR.

"It seems a little bit irresponsible for the federal money to go away when we still are under federal wolf management. In the short term, that may mean some real issues," Stark said. "But we do have methods, in the state wolf management plan, to deal with wolf depredation. ... The issue becomes, how do we pay for it and how well will it work? We may not be able to offer the kind of full-

service response that farmers have now."